Cleveland National Forest: The Complete Guide

Cleveland National Forest's Palomar Mountain Valley

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Cleveland National Forest

Address
Cleveland National Forest, California 92070, USA

Consisting of approximately 460,000 acres, Cleveland National Forest is a spectacular place to head for the hills (and mountains) for stunning scenery like chaparral-covered expanses and ancient oaks, fresh air, camping, and outdoor recreation like fishing, hiking, and mountain biking. The southernmost national forest in California, which contains part of the Pacific Coast Trail, is divided into three main sections: the Trabuco, Palomar, and Descanso Ranger Districts. Use this complete guide to figure out which section is perfect for your adventure in the great outdoors, the best time to go, and other tips for visiting.

History 

Archaeological finds suggest that people lived in the region as far back as 10,000 years ago. Gatherers and nomads know as the San Dieguito inhabited the area in the Paleo Indian Period. By the late prehistoric period, villages had been established. By the time Spanish colonizers showed up in the 1500s, desert and coastal tribes (Kumeyaay, Luiseños, Cahuilla, and Cupeño) foraged for acorns and hunted game here. Many trails that exist today follow these ancient people's well-trekked routes. 

The tribespeople were left mostly unbothered until 1769 when Spanish leadership encouraged Father Junipero Serra to start building missions. Wood was harvested from the mountains to build the first near in San Diego and then Mission San Juan Capistrano. Also in the 1700s, large land grants were given to fur traders and ranchers reducing the tribes' territory. This led to overgrazing, the introduction of nonnative plants, and deforestation. In 1869, gold was discovered near Julian and another wave of settlers rushed in. In the Santa Ana Mountains, zinc, lead, and silver mines were developed. In Trabuco Canyon, there are still remains of an unproductive tin mine started by Gail Borden of the Eagle Milk Co.

The toll the mining booms took on the landscape and the Native population was devastatingly high and by the late 1800s, the watersheds were threatened. The first California Forestry Commission in 1886 found an urgent need for better resource management and that led to the Forest Reserve Act in 1891. President Harrison created the first 50,000-acre chunk of Cleveland in 1893. President Cleveland created the San Jacinto Reserve in 1897. In 1905, the Forest Service was founded and took over management duties. In 1907, President Roosevelt made extensive land additions and a year later combined two reserves into what is now Cleveland National Forest. (Acreage was subsequently trimmed.) The original ranger’s cabin from 1911 and still stands today in the El Prado Campground.

Districts of Cleveland National Forest

Descanso Ranger District: This district starts 5 miles from the Mexican border and extends north roughly 20 miles to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Its wild shrub and tree-covered mountains are a glimpse into California’s pre-mission landscape and it's the home of numerous species like ringtail cats, weasels, bobcats, and mountain lions. Mount Laguna, which usually gets a couple of feet of snow in the winter, is its main attraction providing opportunities for horseback riding, mountain biking, running, and hiking including along the Pacific Coast Trail. There’s an area for off-road vehicles in the southern end of the district. 

Palomar Ranger District: This district, which includes the Peninsular Range’s Palomar and Cuyamaca Mountains, is made up of 128,863 acres in San Diego and Riverside Counties, four major watersheds, 95 miles of hiking trails, three equestrian trails, six campgrounds, the renowned Palomar Observatory, and the San Luis Rey River. Elevation ranges from 880 to 6,140 feet above sea level and visitors can experience chaparral, riparian, grassland, and oak and coniferous woodland ecosystems here. 

Trabuco Ranger District: Covering 138,971 acres within Orange and Riverside Counties, Trabuco Ranger District is the birthplace of the Cleveland National Forest as it was also home to the area’s earliest settlements. Trabuco Canyon pioneers found work in beekeeping and woodcutting before the resources dwindled and the government reclaimed the land. There’s a plethora of places to hike, bike, ride, and camp remotely. A clear day’s drive around the Santa Ana Mountains and their highest point, the 5,700-foot Santiago Peak, results in stunning panoramas.

Garnet Peak Trail in Cleveland National Forest

Courtesy of Cleveland National Forest

Hiking

One of the most popular pastimes in Cleveland is hiking thanks to more than a hundred miles of trails at all levels of difficulty. The Forest Service created a handy guide that has an easy-to-read reference chart to figure out what modes of transportation (legs, wheels, motorized wheels, or horses) are allowed on which trails as well as their lengths and difficulty level. Some of the trails are part of an interactive educational mobile game called “Agents of Discovery.”

The best season for hiking is during the cooler fall and winter months or during the spring months. Summer can be warm, so hiking is recommended in the morning during those months. 

More than 30 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, known as section A,  fall within the boundaries of Cleveland National Forest. Some other not to be missed hikes include Cedar Creek Falls (a seasonal 80-foot cascade into a swimming hole), San Juan Loop (spring wildflowers and steep cliffs that are good for families), and West Horsethief (strenuous elevation changes are rewarded with views of the Orange County coast and a wide variety of trees that are ablaze in color in the autumn).

 Caltech Palomar Observatory

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The Best Things to Do

  • Mountain and dirt biking are allowed on some of the trails. Bike trails are available at all levels of rider from easy (6.7-mile Big Laguna) to extreme (15.2-mile Saddleback Mountain). There are a few designated areas for off-road vehicles specifically like Corral Canyon OHV Area. A handful of trails (Gunslinger, Sidewinder, and Bobcat) in Descanso also allow ATVs. Horseback riding is allowed on many of the trails and some trailheads like Agua Dulce were made with riders in mind and have larger lots to accommodate trailers. 
  • Caltech’s Palomar Observatory offers guided tours that show off the 200-inch Hale Telescope as well as a visitor’s center, gift shop, educational programs, and star-viewing parties. 
  • Birding is great in Laguna Meadow as the two seasonal lakes attract waterfowl and shorebirds. Henshaw Outlook is another good place to watch for wildlife.
  • Hunting of some birds and game is allowed but controlled by season schedule and regulations. There are a lot of rules about what weapons can be used and where, when, and what you can hunt so one should familiarize themselves and purchase the appropriate state hunting licenses and state and federal duck or upland game fowl stamps. You’ll also need a Forest Adventure Pass.
  • Fishing has been limited as fish populations have dwindled and the Department of Fish and Game is monitoring several spots in hopes of expanding numbers and encouraging natural migration and breeding. You can still cast your line—with a valid California fishing license—into Trabuco Creek, which is regularly stocked with rainbow trout from a local hatchery, and along a 5-mile stretch of shore at Loveland Reservoir. They are serious about enforcing the designated area and punishing those who fish outside the boundary as Loveland provides drinking water to nearby cities.

Where to Stay

RV and tent camping are the most prevalent accommodation options. There are 15 campgrounds dispersed throughout the Corral Canyon OHV Area, Laguna Mountain Area, Mount Palomar North Side, Ortega Highway Area, and the South San Mateo Wilderness Area. Amenities and hosted activities vary from one campground to the next. For instance, most summer Saturdays San Diego State University Observatory hosts star parties near Laguna Campground. Boulder Oaks in Descanso has 17 horse stables and links to equestrian trails. Some campgrounds close in the winter while others are open year-round. Also be warned that although RV camping is allowed in some campsites, many do not have dumping stations or hookups. Most sites are first-come, first-serve but reservations should be made in advance through recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777.

The Forest Service does not rent out cabins here though there are some private cabins available through owners or short-term rental services. There are also a few lodges scattered throughout the forest including Bailey’s on Palomar, which offers an assortment of cabins, yurts, and glamping tents, and the Blue Jay Lodge on Mount Laguna. It was built in 1926, has a restaurant, and all of its cabins include a small kitchenette. 

Best Time to Visit

The park is open year-round but the best time to go depends on what activities you’d like to do. Hunting is the most seasonally dependent. Cooler fall and spring months are the best time for hiking. Summer can be awfully warm and winter can be affected by snow. Also, as California’s wildfire problem continues to worsen, new restrictions have been established for high-risk days. If you are set on making s’mores while camping, avoid late summer or fall.

Santiago Peak in Cleveland National Forest

Courtesy of Cleveland National Forest

Getting There

Cleveland sits between coastal cities like Laguna Niguel and San Diego and the inland swath that contains Hemet and Lake Elsinore. Temecula, Julian, and Escondido are good places to stay if you’d like to visit the forest for the day but bunk down in comfort at a larger hotel. There are several casinos on the forest fringes including Harrah’s Southern California and Viejas Casino & Resort. Cleveland is massive with many roads going in and out. How long it takes to get there depends on where you are coming from and where you want to end up. Palomar Observatory is 90 minutes from San Diego and San Clemente and more than two hours from Palm Springs. Laguna Mountain Recreation Area is less than an hour east of San Diego, an hour and a half from Temecula wine country, and its visitor center is 2 hours and 40 minutes from Palm Springs.

Fees & Passes

To use or park at most Cleveland National Forest sites you’ll need to secure a valid recreation pass like the National Forest Adventure Pass in advance. The annual pass is $30 and covers one car and four people. The day pass is $5 and can be purchased online. Generally, if a site has trash cans, bathrooms, picnic tables, parking, or interpretive signs, it requires a pass. Passes and maps can be purchased at local forest service offices or official vendors like sporting goods stores and outfitters nearby. Some trails like Cedar Creek Falls and campgrounds require additional permits and fees. Staying overnight outside of established campground and backcountry hiking requires a Wilderness & Visitor Permit. Fees are waived for veterans and Gold Star families for day use.

Safety Tips

  • Summer can get very hot and some trails provide little shade so rangers suggest avoiding hiking mid-day. Always carry a hat, sunscreen, long-sleeve shirt, and sunglasses to limit exposure. These items can help protect from the winter or nighttime cold as well.
  • Always pack enough water. The general rule of thumb is to drink one liter per hour while active. Do not drink from springs or lakes without treating the water first.
  • Always stay on the trail and watch for poison oak.
  • There are wild animals in the forest including mountain lions, mule deer, foxes, and coyotes. If you cross paths, remember to keep your distance and do not feed them. Black bears are not found here.
  • Ticks can be a problem in spring and early summer. Avoid walking through tall vegetation with exposed skin and do a thorough check of clothing, skin, and hair after hiking.
  • California has been extremely dry for the last few years and massive wildfires have led to strict rules about fires. Fires can only be built in specified campground sites and are not allowed when elevated fire restrictions are in effect. They also ask that you buy wood locally to avoid bringing in non-native seeds or pests. 
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California’s Cleveland National Forest: The Complete Guide